CSA - Community Supported Agriculture


Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a partnership between farmers and the local community, providing mutual benefits and reconnecting the people to the land where their food is grown. There is no set format or structure and farmers and landowners can be involved in a range of ways. At its simplest you can rent land to a CSA group as you would to any other tenant, or you may want to get more involved, by helping to run it, assist with ploughing, providing storage or supply the CSA with additional produce.

If you do not want people on your farm then this is not the option for you. However, for those that enjoy company and are keen to be more connected to their local population, CSA can provide a mutual arrangement that supports both the farm business and improves community engagement.

Pros and cons for consumers (or members)

  • Affordable fresh food from a known source
  • Local economy is enhanced by higher employment, more local processing, local consumption and a re-circulation of money through "local spend'
  • Learning about, and maybe being involved with, how food is produced
  • Learning new skills in horticulture and possibly rearing livestock
  • Opportunity to get involved in a project with other local people and to work on the land.

Pros and cons for farmers

  • Secure income, which improves business planning and time to concentrate on farming
  • Higher and fairer return for your products by selling directly to the public
  • Increased involvement in the local community; the opportunity to respond directly to consumers' needs
  • Community engagement can be a real boost to morale – CSA farmers talk about how much direct positive feedback they get from the people who are eating the food that they are growing / producing 
  • Help with labour and planning initiatives for the future
  • Shared responsibility means that if there is a crop failure the consumers share the loss
  • Having more people on the farm can
    • make it more sociable and enjoyable
    • be frustrating for the farmers (and even dangerous)
  • There is some loss of control when a community group starts to get involved in planning how the CSA will work. This disadvantage can be minimised by some careful planning in advance.

Things you should know

Share in the harvest
Farmer led CSAs are the norm in the US, for example see: Members pay up front for a percentage of the overall harvest, thus sharing the risk and providing working capital. It is a conceivable step away from a box scheme for most farmers and can easily include some community activity such as events and visits. Dragon orchard have done something similar in Ledbury and it works very well for them:

There are few examples of rent-a schemes in the UK. The basic deal is that consumers sign up to a deal to pay the farmer to care for their cow/appletree etc. and return to collect the produce from it at the end. I only know about small scale schemes. Sedlescombe vineyard in Sussex rents rows of vines, similar to French wine shemes.

Supporting landlord
A supportive farmer can also offer a tenancy to a CSA group, perhaps with some support with the farming, but no further stake in the CSA enterprise. You might also offer/lend/rent advice, machinery, barns etc. Luke Hasell has done something similar on his farm for The Community Farm in Somerset. Access to land is one of the main barriers for community led CSAs so this is a good offer.

Selling part of an enterprise to a community group
The new CSA in Stroud based at Stroud Slade farm is a good example. The exisiting box scheme operator had a privately owned business (on rented land). The new CSA group bought his business and raised their own capital from gifts and loans to pay for polytunnels, machinery etc. The same grower is now employed by the CSA group with a contract he helped to negotiate. The CSA provide some extra labour, marketing, a secure customer base, and guaranteed income. The community members who gave loans are paid interest in vegetables.

Capital investors/ lenders
A CSA can be a good way for a farm to raise capital on better terms than a bank would offer. Famously, Fordhall tenants raised £800,000 in a few months by setting up a community enterprise which bought out their landlords. The farmers are now tenants on land held in trust. In this case and in the case of Tablehurst, investors are largely acting from charitable intent and get no special deals in purchasing food from the farm. At Stroud Brewery (not a CSA) there is a similar arrangement at the brewery - all of their capital investment came from local people, who carried the risk of the business failing and are paid interest in beer. In this case the farmer can control a new enterprise but local people feel a connection and loyalty.  The investors could also buy shares in an enterprise, for example to capitalise on a new farm cheese operation - the farmer could retain a controlling share. See also The Community Farm which raised £125,000 and Cultivate, Oxford which raised £80,000.

A supporters group
Some farms already have informal supporters groups. With only a little effort a farmer could help bring a group of interested neighbours, dog walkers, friends and customers together to organise, in a semi-formal way, through an informal partnership arrangement (like a PTA, or friends of Southmead Hospital). The 'friends of' group could have access to the farm, events, and offer low key help such as volunteer labour and word of mouth marketing.

Partnership with buying group
In this model the Community group is separately constituted and the farm continues as a private business but has a partnerhsip arrangement with the community group. The farm might initiate the community group and help with set up organisation, but it is not controlled by the farm. The community group might be a buying group and have a deal with the farm to buy a certain amount of produce during the season, which it might distribute itself. The group may buy from several sources. In exchange the farm might offer events or a special rate for produce.

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